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Words of Wisdom

 “No matter what happens, it’s all copy.”    

Nora Ephron recounting her screenwriter mother’s advice whenever life got complicated.    

Nora did indeed–as her mother exhorted from her deathbed– “take notes, take notes!” And this past week we took note of two writers who also look homeward for “copy” and inspiration.   

Venerable journalist and author Pete Hamill and new-media sensation Justin Halpern couldn’t have less in common; they’re products of vastly different generations, backgrounds, coasts, genres and sensibilities. But both hear the same muse: a larger-than-life parent whose penetrating words keep them humble.   

During a talk we attended at NYU’s Journalism Institute last Thursday, Mr. Hamill spun lyrical tales of old New York, the city he first came to know and love by taking long walks with his mother. On one of those excursions, a very young Pete and his brother started making fun of a “wino” they saw begging.  Anne Hamill rebuked them sharply: “Don’t you ever look down on anybody unless you’re giving them a hand to help them get up.”  This lesson, he said, became a guiding force of his life and his rich body of work.   

The same night, CBS aired a new sitcom, “$#*!” My Dad Says,” based on the eponymous Twitter-feed in which Mr. Halpern disseminates his father’s outrageous rants. The world according to the septuagenarian Halpern–featuring politically incorrect, X-rated observations about practically everything, and blistering put-downs of his slacker son (who still lives at home)–quickly spawned a massive following, a bestselling book and a TV deal! A recent tweet was Dad’s reply when Justin confessed he had butterflies about the premiere. “Nervous? In 5 billion years the sun will burn out and nothing you did will matter. Feel better?”   

Ouch. Waxing– and wincing–nostalgic, we decided to examine parental pearls of wisdom, both given and received. Check out the comments section for some family jewels we solicited – from our kids’ generation as well.  And feel free to add your own to the pile!   

 From Mary:   

My father, who grew up in the Depression, worked until the day he died at age 79.  His comments reflected that drive:  “Time is money,”  “Wake up, it’s another  day of opportunity,” “Keep all your options open,”  and “Always arrive at work 5 minutes before your boss does, and leave 10 minutes after he leaves, in case he forgot his hat.” My mother was famous for her cautionary: “Always wear clean underwear in case you get in an accident.”   

I asked my three adult children what sayings they recall from their father and me, and they replied:  “Nothing good happens at 2 a.m.,” “Winners never quit, and quitters never win,”Be nice to people on your way up because you never know who you will meet on your way down,” “Run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes,” and the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I am happy to say that they have pretty much followed the advice.   

From Vivien:   

Not only did my dad regularly say over-the-top “$#*!” like Justin’s– he said it in three languages!  But beyond that, my late parents’ classic lines reflected their very different temperaments. My father, in high German, would regale my brother and me with baroque soliloquies about “morning’s golden hours” and sacrificing everything “to live but once in Paradise.” My mother was all about putting on the brakes.  Constantly reminding me and my girlfriends, “Why should he buy the cow if he gets the milk for free?” she was the inevitable buzzkill, the counter to a burgeoning counterculture.   Whenever I started dating somebody, she insisted – via yet another bovine metaphor – that I immediately check out his family:  “Before you buy a cow, take a good look around the stall. I used to bristle at this, but came to understand she wasn’t simply being judgmental about others’ all-too-human struggles.  She was urging me to steer clear of  severely dysfunctional families in the grip (sometimes for generations)of pathology or abuse.  I ventured inside a couple of those stalls and found the air was toxic, with – as Ma had warned – only a rare , heroic offspring able to break the cycle.   

Of course, this same wise woman advised me: “If you really like a guy, don’t ever let him see you from behind in a bathing suit until after you’re married; if you insist on going in the water – BACK AWAY.”   

Anyway, glad I ended up with a cow spouse who appreciates me from every angle, and who hails from a uniquely fine stall.  My salt-of-the-earth in-laws, both 88, live around the corner and I marvel at their dogged independence, generosity and grace. I asked my husband what they had imparted when he and his four sibs were growing up.   “Dad would say: ‘When you always tell the truth, you only have to remember one story.’” And his mother?  Without hesitating an instant, and with a look of utmost seriousness, he formed a big zero with his thumb and forefinger.  “She never needed to say a word,” he answered.  “She led only by example.”   

 

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • CQuigs September 26, 2010, 9:25 pm

    An informal poll of students at a Boston College theater rehearsal came up with these ingrained-on-the-brain sayings from parents:

    Sweat pants should never be worn out of the house
    Don’t sit too close to the TV
    I’ll start treating you like an adult when you act like one
    I don’t care who made the mess; just pick it up
    Be a lady
    Always drink light beer
    Don’t date losers
    If you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything at all
    If you have a lemon, made lemonade
    This too shall pass

  • jpw September 26, 2010, 9:26 pm

    From me to my children:
    If you’re going to have kids, have them when you’re young.
    Always expect the other guy to do the wrong thing (while teaching my son to drive)
    If it can happen, it will happen
    Okay, you’re out of the will!

  • Elaine Schreibman September 27, 2010, 1:04 am

    I have too many!!! Can you even imagine, from Fran’s mouth? Here’s one: “Who cares what they say about you – be happy knowing they’re leaving somebody else alone!”

  • Michael Mannello September 27, 2010, 1:07 am

    To avoid saying something you would later regret, my mother would recommend: “Count to ten and pray a Hail Mary.” Needless to say, I know my numbers and have prayed quite a few novenas in my time.

  • Jonathan Kose September 27, 2010, 1:12 am

    My mother insisted that if you take a nap on Rosh Hashanah, you will sleep through the whole year. Which probably explains my performance in high school. And from Miriam’s late mom – in Yiddish, of course: “When there’s no parnassa (income), love flies out the window.” “If you’re looking for trouble, you will find it.”

  • elise meyer September 27, 2010, 11:58 am

    my mother’s:
    Elise Meyer ‎”you have to suffer to be beautiful!”
    my dad’s : “in this world there are more horses’ asses than horses.”

  • NMW September 27, 2010, 1:22 pm

    My mom said the following gems to me as I was growing up:

    Rich or poor, it’s nice to have money.
    Don’t run after men and trains,there’ll always be another one.

    And I tell my children…The lazy man works twice as hard.
    I guess I’ve turned into my mother. I only wish she were around so I could tell her how I feel.

  • Nancy Steiner September 27, 2010, 1:23 pm

    Well, of course there was “I don’t care if Susie’s mother lets her [fill in the blank]. You don’t live in Susie’s house.” And when I was older and about to get married, my mom’s advice — which I’ve found applies in many situations beyond marriage — was “Choose your battles.”

  • leslie September 27, 2010, 2:16 pm

    Loved this piece. It was interesting to read it with the view of the offspring and remember my own eye rolling at my parents advice, and as the ( now ) adult child who is intrigued by how many parents see life so clearly. My own father used to say “I trust your judgement”– a fine shot since it made me proud— then obligated to use that judgement! Well done, dad. My mother only gave correction and advice regarding small things ( like thank you notes and manners) and important things like being a good, truthful and contributing neighbor, friend and citizen. On the large life decisions she stepped back from offering her kids advice. Saying, in effect, that she didn’t want the responsibility for the unlived lives of her children–that our success, failures and life choices had to be decided upon and lived by us. However much she adored us she felt she couldn’t possibly know us well enough to choose for us.

  • Robin September 27, 2010, 2:51 pm

    So many wonderful different perspectives- and as Vivien demonstrates, it’s always good to have a variety of perspectives on life and how to live it, whether from your parents, your spouse, or your self.

  • F.D. Fields September 27, 2010, 3:34 pm

    Our only child is on the cusp of becoming 21 so I will be checking back often for short cuts and humor and a sense of community with others in the same boat. Honestly, in a nano-second my parents’ voices move my tongue to say, “if it’s too good to be true, it is”; “get it in writing”; and “don’t rash judge.” Delivered at separate moments to be sure, but taken together they have been a tested formula for sailing a steady course through life. I suppose we are about to find out if that holds appeal for our son!

  • Debbie Mahoney September 27, 2010, 5:40 pm

    If you want to have a friend you have to be a friend

  • Sharon Sobel September 27, 2010, 8:19 pm

    Neither my parents nor my grandparents were apt to toss out any time-honored phrases but gems always shone through in ordinary conversation. The Women’s Movement was in its first wildly exciting years while I was in college, and at that time I reflected on something my mother said years before. I am certain she did not intend for it to be a metaphor for the Movement, or for the course of her children’s lives, but it certainly was empowering.
    I was one of the first girls to own a Barbie doll, a blond pony-tailed beauty in a strapless striped bathing suit. When Mattel came out with Ken, it was absolutely necessary to get Barbie a boyfriend. But when I looked through the tiny catalog of themed clothing for them, I was disappointed that Ken had only a fraction of what was offered for Barbie.
    I complained to my mother, and asked why Ken just didn’t have as much stuff. She – a Brooklyn housewife who would start college in her forties – thought about it for a few moments and answered, “That’s because Ken is really an accessory to Barbie.”
    Barbie gets a bad rap these days, for her impossible figure, her permanently high-heeled feet, her sometimes nutty career choices. But she was a doll woman who had a doll man as her accessory.
    Thanks for that, Mom!

  • Malerie September 28, 2010, 7:03 am

    My grandfather: “Analyze before you finalize.”
    My Dad (to get us going for our many break-of-dawn road trips): “Wake up, kids, there are pink elephants dancing on the lawn!”
    Jeff’s Mom: “You can do anything, if you put your mind to it.”
    Me to my kids; “Who do you think I am? The maid?”

  • Elisa September 28, 2010, 2:14 pm

    My mom used to say “Strive for the stars, you can be anyone you want even the President of IBM, this was the 70’s.

    Carol, was also big on “Boys always want what they can’t have”

  • Kathy September 29, 2010, 6:51 pm

    Our parents were not prone to preaching or long emotional lectures. How one lives life is the loudest teacher. I thank our parents for making it all so simple.

  • Nancy Firth September 29, 2010, 10:38 pm

    If your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?
    And the famous,”wear clean underwear in case you get in an accident”.

  • Jackie September 30, 2010, 9:26 pm

    My mother used to say “Rich or poor, it’s nice to have money!

  • Ulrike November 4, 2010, 4:42 pm

    ‎Hey this is such a great way to find out what other parents, cultures and histories developed this kind of “Sprichwörter”. That’s German for proverb!? I’m grown up in Germany and I had the honor to meat Larry Orbach. He was someone who loved to use Sprichwörter for shure 🙂 I personly like it a lot because most of them are true and have a deeper ,meaning. When you grow up this word grow up as well and you start to realize the hole world behind it. My mum alwys told me “Auf auf sprach der Fuchs zu Hasen, hörste nicht die Jäger blasen?”
    It means : “… Up, Up says the fox to the bunny … don’t you hear the hunters bugle?” (hope its correct translated) Actually its a real brutal way to be awoken. But my mum always said it like it would be nothing bad and she tickelt me while she was saying… it. But today I wonder: What a brutal wake-up call … In the same time I guess that she was certainly the fox and I was the bunny and we both had to leave cause time is running (head over heals) and time can be soooo brutal! Do you know the german movie MOMO? You have to watch it. Its written by Michael Ende… really great book as well!!!There is time even stolen and sometimes I have the same impression. Maybe there really is someone stealing time and memory? So what I’m about to say its great to take time for talk about “mother’s pearls”!

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